"Beginners," Maureen Strange's first novel, has been labeled (on the jacket) "A Family Story." It could also be called "Ordinary People From Brooklyn." It's the story of Chickie Fontana and Rudy Becker, who meet at the scene of a car accident in 1949 and marry a few months later. Then they have Bessie, Ginger and Shawn, live in the city for a while, and eventually move to Long Island.
She's a housewife, he's a cop. The novel covers roughly 20 years in their lives, moving swiftly, hitting the highlights: Chickie's suspicions of Rudy's philandering; her frustration and anger at the unplanned conception of Shawn; her subsequent fanatic concern for his health; the peretual grief of Bessie, who suffers from not being in with the in-crowd. Also: house hunting, redecorating, sibling rivalry, problems with school, and the arguments, the complaining, the moaning and the bickering, the seemingly endless family fights.
It's novel with the volume turned up full blast. "'And that sour puss of yours! I'm sick of looking at that puss, day in, day out.'"; or, "'I don't give a damn! The kids! The kids oughta know what kind of father they got! And since when do you give a damn about the kids, anyhow,'" are typical snatches of dialogue. There are few words of love; the affectionate moments. in evidence during Chickie's unwanted pregnancy and teen-aged Ginger's suspected pregnancy, are brief. Instead, the characters spend a lot of time talking at each other, immersed in their personal clouds of exaggerated woes.
It's Chickie's boisterous, cheerful, combative personality that seems to hold both book and family together. She is a lively presence, and Strange does write of her with vitality and humor. But the exuberance is oftn strident, the comic scenes of family life a bit tedious. Much is made, for example, of Chickie's penchant for "modern" decor, especially for tearing down walls so that counters and dividers can blossom; of Chickie's endless telephone conversations with her sister, of the stale and moldy food littering the refrigerator. These are the things that fill the Beckers' lives as they form part of the lives of many people. But as the stuff of fiction, they are limited -- jokes that only get us started, tone suggesters, faintly boring when they become recurrent themes.
Beginners" is light on detail and heavy on the exaggerated semi-sarcasm and vague contempt for the world prevalent in adolescence. The kids search the refrigerator for snacks, hoping "that someone, somewhere in the ranks of the Heavenly Orders had been touched by the poignance of the situation and [would] cause the materialization... of one small bag of Wise potato chips (the 5-cent lunchbox size would more than suffice) or a Devil Dog. But this... was not in the cards, and so as alast, final act of indignation before settling down to the truly unexciting prospect of Accepting the Facts, Ginger would stand in the middle of the kitchen, raise her arms to the heavens and wail "There is no fooooood in this house!'"
In fact, the kids set the tone for much of this book. They seem to runthings. Bessie, at once miserable and superior because she is not popular, dominates both the family mood and the second half of the story. Shawn misses school at will, smokes pot in his bedroom, and explains patiently to his mother when she challenges him, "I told you that, too Chickie. . . Jesus, you're like a broken record'" And Chickie yells and nags and lets them get away with it all, while Rudy complains but basically stays out of it, reading his magazines and doing home improvements. They are beginners -- bih kids themselves, no smarter for experience, just muddling through.
Maybe, in fact, that's the way life really is. The Becker family portrait is not inaccurate; not unlike the Archie Bukers', who also have something to tell about the way things really are. But why can't these people quiedt down sometimes? Why can't they connect? The problem with "Beginners" is that it is bound by the same one-sided conception that makes it funny and true. Sure, life is cluttered with unoriginal thoughts and quarrels and consumer products and seat-of-the-pants decisions, but it is more than the sum of them. There is something that breathes life into all of us, into characters as well, that goes beyond what is being done and said. It is, perhaps, a delicate balance between cliche and uniqueness that makes characters both vivid and real. In "Beginners" the "real life" part is heavily documented -- the Wonder Bread, the pain of adolescene, the holiday fights. It's the "unique" part that too rarely gets engaged -- the part that goes beyond familiar jokes about the working class and the suburbs, beyond constant nagging and moaning, into the hearts of the characters, their failures, their gentleness, their dreams.